October 31, 2019 / 7:36 PM / 14 days ago

UPDATE 2-Argentina sets floor under peso as reserves dwindle

(Updates market moves, adds details on anti-austerity protest)

By Jorge Otaola and Walter Bianchi

BUENOS AIRES, Oct 31 (Reuters) - Argentina’s central bank is setting a price floor under the volatile peso in hopes to avoid a sharp plunge in the currency after an opposition-won presidential election last Sunday shifted the country firmly back to the left.

The peso edged up on Thursday to 59.68 per dollar, with the central bank offering U.S. currency in the exchange market at a fixed 59.99 pesos per greenback, effectively putting a floor on the trade.

Argentina’s markets have been held in limbo following a general election on Sunday, as traders and investors await signals from President-elect Alberto Fernandez about the future direction of Latin America’s no. 3 economy.

A spokesman for the center-left Peronist leader said he would travel to Mexico on Friday and return in the middle of the following week, his first trip overseas since being elected.

Fernandez will face a full array of economic woes when he takes office in December, including protecting reserves and dealing with a looming pile of debt amid complex negotiations with creditors and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Wednesday the United States expected him to uphold the country’s commitment to the terms of a $57 billion IMF loan program agreed last year with conservative incumbent Mauricio Macri.

The President-elect will have to balance the IMF commitments while dealing with rising levels of poverty, which have risen amid the economic malaise. Protesters marched on Thursday in the center of Buenos Aires to protest austerity measures under Macri and the IMF, with the slogan “the debt is with the people, not the IMF”.

Authorities have also been rushing to stem a sharp decline in foreign currency reserves, after spending about $22 billion to defend the peso since business-friendly leader Macri was defeated heavily in an Aug. 11 primary election.

Argentina central bank president Guido Sandleris pledged on Monday to do everything possible to protect the bank’s reserves, as the South American country transitions to a new leftist government amid a swirling economic crisis.

The country’s creditors say fears are rising that reserves could run out, even as the country looks to restructure around $100 billion in local and overseas sovereign debt.

After Sunday’s election, the central bank announced it would tighten a restriction on dollar purchases to $200 per month for individuals, down from $10,000 a month, until December, in order to protect forex reserves.

Argentina’s inflation is running at an annual rate of above 50%, interest rates are sky-high and the economy has been mired in recession for most of the last year.

The peso, which has steadied since Argentine authorities imposed capital controls in September, was down 3.5% in October and has tumbled nearly 37% so far this year.

Reporting by Jorge Otaola and Eliana Raszewski; Writing by Adam Jourdan; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Diane Craft

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